NASA officials announced at a press conference today that the InSight lander on Mars will likely cease operations at the end of 2022, after three years of scientific work on the surface of the Red Planet.
InSight arrived at Mars in November 2018, and during its time on Mars, it collected impressive data on the planet’s structure and the seismic events emanating from its interior. Recently, the probe detected its largest earthquake to date and the largest ever detected in another world: a size 5 event. (Earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 are often felt on Earth, and tend to cause minimal damage; the previous largest earthquake on Mars was about 10 times smaller than that.)
But now, the lander is full of dust that has settled on its solar panels, hampering its ability to absorb light and generate energy. The InSight team has come up with a file The McGuyver-esque way to get rid of some of that dust: By shoveling Martian soil and dropping it on dust, they were able to marginally clean the plates. This maneuver has been successfully performed six times, according to Cathia Zamora Garcia, deputy project manager at InSight.
But the reality of InSight mode is that it is in a hostile environment; Nothing lasts forever, and the probe appears doomed to end its science operations this summer and end all operations by the end of the year, the InSight team estimates.
“One of InSight’s legacy is that it really proves seismology technology for planetary science,” said Bruce Banerdt, Principal Investigator at InSight, during the press conference. “We have been able to map the interior of Mars for the first time in history.”
In its tenure, the lander has detected 1,313 marsquakes to date. When it began its science, InSight was capable of running for about 5,000 watt-hours per sol (Martian day); now, overwhelmed by the Martian dust, the lander can only manage 500 watt-hours per sol. The reduction is the equivalent of going from running an electric oven for an hour and 40 minutes per day on Earth to only about 10 minutes per day, Zamora Garcia said.
Seismic measurements are crucial for understanding the structure and evolution of rocky worlds like Earth, Mars, and Venus. On Earth, many seismic events are caused by plate tectonics, but others are caused by sources in the crust or convection in the mantle, the molten region below the crust. Mars has no plate tectonics, so the events are strictly the latter, though the seismometers also can pick up movements from impact events.
InSight was charged with (and delivered on) giving humanity the best-yet look at Mars’ geological and seismological systems. InSight detected Thickness and composition of the Martian crust, as well as details of the planet’s atmosphere and core. But the probe also had its struggles. Previous dust storms Force the probe to safe mode, and InSight ‘Mole’ – a heat probe that was supposed to drill into the surface of Mars – is stuck in the disturbing consistency of Martian soil. The The mole was abandoned in January 2021.
Scientific operations could end in mid-July, Zamora Garcia said, but InSight’s fate ultimately comes down to (or wrath) the Martian climate. “It has exceeded our expectations at almost every turn on Mars,” Banerdt said. “It might actually last longer than that.”
A faulty dust storm could wipe out the probe even sooner, or a clamshell dust demon could sweep accumulated dust off the lander’s solar panels, providing a huge power boost. “We are working to get as much as possible, but we just have to see what Mars and Insight have to offer us,” Bannerdt said.
Barring any Martian miracles, the hypersensitive InSight lander is on its last leg. For each of its struggles and failures, the probe has produced a set of data about the buried secrets of rocky worlds outside our own. So thanks, InSight, for all your unspoken perseverance.
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